Is the Black Country about to turn blue?

Is the Black Country about to turn blue?

Ieuan Joy reports from a neglected, Leave-voting Labour heartland.

Ieuan Joy

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Topics Brexit Politics UK

Dudley, West Brom, Wolverhampton, Stourbridge and a dozen or so more places make up what is known as the Black Country. In the West Midlands, to the west of Birmingham, it is an area with a rich industrial history, its own dialect, unique accent, and even its own flag. It is also one of the key battlegrounds in next week’s General Election.

Most of the Black Country’s residents are working class. It is known as a Labour heartland. But many of the seats in this area are now marginals. The Tories took some southern seats, including Stourbridge and Dudley South, in 2010. The seats in Wolverhampton and West Bromwich are still red, but only just. A small swing to the Tories would mean them taking several constituencies off Labour at this election.

My local constituency is Halesowen and Rowley Regis. It is another Tory gain from 2010, but it is still a close marginal. Like much of the Black Country, it is also heavily Eurosceptic – 67 per cent of residents voted Leave.

Labour has a slick online organisation here. But how is Labour trying to appeal to Brexit voters, given its plan to hold a second referendum? I talked to councillor Ann Shackleton while she was out canvassing with local activists. She said the Labour voters she has spoken to ‘would rather not vote than vote Tory’, which is revealing in itself. Clearly, she is facing some pushback on the doorstep.

But she stressed that local issues, concerning NHS provision and crime, come up more often than Brexit. ‘It’s hardly been an issue’, she says. The campaigners similarly stress the importance of their strong local candidate.

This may well be true. But, talking to voters, it becomes clear that Jeremy Corbyn is working against the local Labour candidates. Office worker Lisa Willetts calls him a ‘tosser’. She is voting Tory, ‘but only reluctantly’. She was disappointed to find out that the Brexit Party had stood down in the seat to give the Tories a clear run. While the canvassers say Brexit isn’t coming up very much, Lisa says ‘we need to get out smartish’.

Ruby Sampson, campaign manager for the University of Birmingham Conservative Society, says the response in Halesowen has been ‘really positive’. She says Labour voters are switching to the Tories in some wards. And the reason for this is Corbyn.

Labour canvassers suggest some Labour voters will stay home, while Tory canvassers say Labour voters are switching to their side. Whichever side is right, this is bad news for Labour. If both are right, it is really bad news for Labour. Given Labour set out to take seats back from the Tories at this election, it is not an encouraging picture.

The Black Country isn’t just a target for the two main parties. The Brexit Party, though it has agreed to stand down in Tory-held seats, is still standing in many Labour-held seats. I was going to head to Dudley North, for a Brexit Party rally involving Rupert Lowe, an MEP who was due to contest the seat. But at the last minute he announced that he was stepping down, fearing he would split the Leave vote.

So instead I travelled an hour-and-a-half by bus to Wollaston, where the Brexit Party was holding another rally. I spoke to retired sales-office manager Gaynor and former builder Glen. They attended a rally here in May. ‘Last time it was full to the brim’, Gaynor says. Now, there are around 200 supporters in a room that could easily hold double that.

Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage was due to speak but dropped out for ‘strategic reasons’. Clearly, Lowe’s resignation in Dudley North dealt a blow to the Brexit Party’s ambitions in the Black Country. While we wait for the Farage-less rally to begin, I have another chat with Gaynor. She has always been a Tory voter. She says she is ‘slightly worried about splitting the vote here’. Still, she thinks ‘the Brexit Party need some seats in parliament, prodding Boris’s bum’.

Martin Daubney MEP addresses a Brexit Party rally in Wollaston
Martin Daubney MEP addresses a Brexit Party rally in Wollaston

Despite Farage pulling out of the rally, the room still buzzes with optimism. Martin Daubney MEP, who is the prospective parliamentary candidate for Ashfield, puts in a strong performance. The crowd loves it. But the biggest round of applause is for accountant and ex-Tory Raj Singh Chaggar, the candidate for Wolverhampton South East. He’s a less-than-honed public speaker, but he is a local man and he speaks to local issues.

For a party that has stood down half of its candidates, and which is struggling in the polls, the Brexit Party is clearly fighting hard in Labour seats here. The party faithful is still energised, and motivated by a sense that the two main parties have neglected this part of the UK for too long. I chatted to one voter, who preferred not to be named. ‘If you don’t live inside that M25, you’re forgot about’, he said.

These people are not just right-wingers. When Daubney asked who has voted for which party before, it is a three-way split between Labour, the Tories and UKIP. Everyone in attendance said they wanted a political shake-up. But I have a feeling that, come election day, many voters outside the rally won’t want to risk losing Brexit or making Jeremy Corbyn PM, however much they agree with the Brexit Party — so they may well go for the Tories.

I met with Raj and local activists at Bilston Market the next morning. This seems like fertile ground for them. William, an elderly Leave voter, chips in as I talk to an activist: ‘I’d vote the same again, Leave. What I don’t respect is that these MPs’ constituents voted Leave, and they are all against it. What we’ve seen in parliament is a disgrace, never seen anything like it.’

He tells me he is torn between the Conservatives and the Brexit Party. ‘I like Boris, he’s an intelligent man, he’s not stupid, he’s not a fool.’ But as we talk, it seems like Corbyn has more or less made his mind up for him. ‘Now I think I’m going with the Conservatives. Corbyn, Christ, I can’t stand that man. And strewth, that Diane Abbott – oh my God, I can’t stand that woman.’

Shoppers and traders in Bilston Market
Shoppers and traders in Bilston Market

This is a 68 per cent Leave seat, up to now represented by Labour’s Pat McFadden, who supports a second referendum. ‘The people around here will tell you that he has an attitude the size of New York’, Raj tells me. ‘It’s arrogance, and people are fed up.’ Still, this is a strong Labour area, and the campaign is proving to be an uphill struggle for the Brexit Party and the Tories.

The market is bustling. Raj is very much a local man. He introduces me to the stall owners, including Leslie, who sells frozen fish and meat. She’s ex-Labour, now a Brexit Party voter. ‘We’ve had enough, we wanna get out, and Pat [McFadden] has stabbed us in the back… Why should I vote for a bloke like that?’

Dave works next door to Leslie. He serves Bilston’s sweet tooth with his sweet stall. He’s just as angry with Labour. ‘As long as Labour don’t get in, mate, I’m not bothered. When I was a kid they were working class, now they’re all in it to line their own pockets.’

John, a Labour voter, says Corbyn ‘seems more for the people… I’ve got no faith in Boris Johnson whatsoever’. But fruit-seller June disagrees: ‘I don’t like Jeremy Corbyn. I don’t like his views, or his manner. If he wasn’t the leader I would vote for Labour, but not with him as leader.’

Raj is a good candidate. He clearly cares more about representing the views of the area than the current MP, who has voted repeatedly against Brexit. The people I talk to say they haven’t seen McFadden out campaigning at all. But it is also clear that voters here are more likely to turn to the Conservatives than the Brexit Party. Many fear losing Brexit, and Corbyn becoming PM.

Wolverhampton Brexit Party candidates Vishal Dilip Khatri and Raj Singh Chaggar
Wolverhampton Brexit Party candidates Vishal Dilip Khatri and Raj Singh Chaggar

Of all the seats in the Black Country, Dudley North is the one to look out for most on 12 December. The Labour MP here won by just 22 votes last time. And that MP is Ian Austin, the adopted son of Jewish refugees, who left the party in disgust earlier this year over the anti-Semitism scandal. He is now urging voters to back the Tories.

In Dudley, I bump into David Wright, a Labour canvasser from Birmingham. He tells me the campaign is going well, but he gave away his concerns fairly quickly. He says the area is ‘about as working class as you get… For the life of me, I don’t get why this is such a Conservative area, and it can only be the Brexit issue. It has to be. Look around you, you wouldn’t think this area was Conservative.’

I met Ian Austin’s successor as Labour candidate, too: the improbably named Melaine Dudley. She tells me ‘it’s been a really good day’ on the doorstep. ‘The vast majority are supportive of Labour and me as a candidate. Brexit is coming up a lot less than you would think. There is the frustration about how long it’s taken. But broadly, it’s much more about bringing in more money for hospitals and schools.’

‘I am a local Dudley girl. That was my primary school, I was brought up on this hill’, she says. When conversation turns to her predecessor, and his decision to back the Tories, she says ‘very few people have mentioned it’.

Melanie took Rupert Lowe’s decision to pull out as the Brexit Party candidate, so as not to risk a Labour win, as a sign that she is doing something right. ‘He said he wanted to stop me getting a seat, and by that stage I’d been the candidate for three days. I took it as an accomplishment – I’m that much of a threat.’

But the biggest threat to Melanie’s candidacy seems to be Labour’s Brexit position. Labour candidates across the Black Country say they are fighting on local issues. But why should voters take this party seriously on any issue, when it is ignoring their vote to leave the EU?

What has struck me across these constituencies is the difference between this election and 2017. In the last election I met voters begrudgingly voting Labour, despite their concerns about Corbyn. But things have changed. A sense of betrayal has set in, and the damage to Labour is beginning to look permanent.

When Labour embraced a second referendum, it was banking on Labour Leave voters never switching to the Tories. Some won’t, of course. But many, it seems, will. Others just won’t vote at all. And in some of these tight marginals, that could prove decisive.

Labour’s second-referendum policy may have united a fractured party membership, but it has alienated the party’s Leave-voting heartlands. The only enthusiastic Labour voters I meet are those who voted Remain — and in places that voted Leave by around 70 per cent, that’s a bad sign.

Black Country voters are turning their backs on Labour. But only because Labour under Corbyn turned its back on them a long time ago. Apathy and reluctance has turned into hatred on the doorstep, in the markets, and perhaps into the voting booth.

If the Tories triumph in the Black Country next Thursday, it will be Labour’s doing.

Ieuan Joy is a student journalist based in Sheffield. Follow him on Twitter: @JoyIeuan.

Pictures by: Ieuan Joy

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Comments

Linda Payne

9th December 2019 at 12:52 pm

The tories are not going to deliver Brexit in any meaningful sense and those of us who just wanted to leave have been disenfranchised; I think Boris will win the election and austerity will continue

gatite gatite

8th December 2019 at 5:32 pm

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Lee Killon

8th December 2019 at 1:40 pm

I live in Preston and have always voted Labour. I voted to leave the EU and my vote has not been honoured so I will definitely be voting tories. At least with Boris we’ll get to leave the EU and my vote from 2016 will mean something. Labour and Lib Dems are traitors

John Reic

7th December 2019 at 6:14 pm

Saw Eleanor smith her stick due to Corbyn which was a shame

Mike Ellwood

7th December 2019 at 8:29 pm

I had a sheltered upbringing. What is “smith her stick” a euphemism for please?

Genghis Kant

7th December 2019 at 12:31 pm

There is a video going around of Corbyn arriving at a pensioner’s club in Upper Gornal in the Black Country.

https://youtu.be/N_N5OnIJ9WU

They don’t seem to like him.

I was born in Gornal – as solid Labour as it was possible to be. A former mining village and heavy industry area. I remember back in the 70s the traditional Labour working class despairing at the people like Corbyn taking over what they saw as their Labour party.

zack smith

7th December 2019 at 11:20 am

The Tories are hardly the answer, they have been in power for nearly a decade. If they could fix left behind areas they would have done so.

The problem with the Labour party was actually summed up in a Guardian article. Traditional Labour voters like Labour’s economic policies but they hate their loony social policies. They don’t want Corbyn and Abbott in charge of migration policy. They want ore police and longer snetences. They don’t want loony feminism and identity politics.

The problem with the Guardian was shown by comments being disabled for the article.

K Tojo

7th December 2019 at 2:58 pm

Answers to major social and economic problems don’t come easy in spite of what electioneering politicians and windbagging journalists seem to believe. Subjecting each party’s spending plans to aggressive critical analysis may look like hugely important journalism by hugely important journalists but it is irrelevant if nobody knows how to begin to fix the nation’s structural problems.

This long-winded election campaign has been notable for the tedious cat and mouse game played between TV news broadcasters and the candidates for Prime Minister. The doyens of TV news and current affairs clearly see themselves as the guardians of democracy. Politicians are accountable to their army of career journalists. The voting public are just the audience.

Jerry Owen

7th December 2019 at 4:25 pm

Are you talking about the economic policies they can’t pay for?

zack smith

7th December 2019 at 8:57 pm

You would have a point if the Tories had shown themselves to be economically competent but they haven’t. The reality is neither party can pay for its spending pledges because the UK economy is rotten.

We can’t run a massive trade deficit, a housing bubble, massive amounts of consumer credit and very low levels of R&D and investment spending forever. The economy to pay for government spending no longer exists.

The only way to fix that is to borrow and invest. Do I trust Labour to do it competently? No, too much of their plans is just a bung to their voters in the public sector. However the Tory plan of do f**k all is no more credible.

steve moxon

7th December 2019 at 10:44 am

Along these same lines, BBC Newsnight found real anti-Liebore sentiment among hitherto die-hard Liebore voters in Wakefield. The surprise is just how long it’s taken for the ‘Labour donkey’ vote to crumble. It should have done decades ago, but such is the destruction of politics caused by first-past-the-post cementing the two-party system.
Now at long last are the conditions to establish an actual party for ordinary people to replace the hate-the-people obscenity that is Liebore, its being ‘identity politics’ central. Nigel Farage was too early and blew it by going down the single issue route instead of building a proper party, which he could have done by subsuming an anti-EU position under anti-‘PC’ in its widest sense.

Iain Litenment

7th December 2019 at 7:06 am

Corbyn’s grumpy, huffy-puffy, spineless, paternalistic version of father Christmas is not going down well.

Pragmatix Pragmatix

6th December 2019 at 7:22 pm

The paradigm shift of Labour heartlands to Tory et al, can be espoused in one word “Thatcher”.

Contrary to perceived perspective, Margaret Thatcher did NOT “Destroy British industry”: rather, she totally failed to support it. Instead, she focused upon her Wunderkind, The City and the enabling power, she believed, of the Free Market, inwards investment and the so-called “Service Industries”.

Fast forward: NuLab, under the dubious premiership of one Mr Bliar, had realised the old tropes about higher wages, workers’ rights, etc, were passé

Therefore the inner clique of NuLab, led by the odious Prince of Darkness, Mandelson, decided upon a new strategy of covert social engineering: canvass Third World Immigration; since then the Sword of Damocles hanging over such immigrants was “…repatriation if you don’t vote labour!” Whistle blown by Andrew Neather.

Today, far too many voters in the old industrial heartlands enjoy a lifestyle and income expectancy far and above those of their parents and grandparents.

Voters are not all totally stupid; Comrade Corbynchov and his oppo Comrade Ivan Mcdonnellovitch clearly think they are…

As Abraham Lincoln quoth:

“You can fool some of the people all of the time; and most of the people some of the time. But you cannot fool all of the people all of the time!”

Michael Lynch

6th December 2019 at 8:39 pm

Thatcher didn’t ignore Industry in GB, it was gone already before she even came to power. She’d have just been flogging a dead horse if she had tried to support most of it. The Unions carved it all up long before her. For example, Red Robbo and his merry bunch destroyed Leyland during the 70s. It simply couldn’t compete with the Japanese cars starting to arrive in the country at that time. Their cars were over priced rot boxes, I should know as I owned 2 Minis and a Metro Van and then only because they were very cheap to buy second hand. It was perhaps the height of irony that, during the mid 70’s, the staff car parks at Longbridge were full to the brim of Japanese cars.

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